Tacoma Scholars Come Full Circle
Act Six Scholarship founder Tim Herron saw a need in the local scholarship system 10 years ago.
High school staff and college recruiters were working hard to get underrepresented populations – mainly low-income minorities – out of high school and onto a college campus.
And for the most part it was working.
But then the problem became a matter of numbers. More than half of the low-income minority students who made it to college did not finish.
And many of those who did graduate moved their new skills and talents away from Tacoma.
Herron saw a need in Tacoma, to give scholarship recipients more than just financial support to make it to college. They also needed emotional and practical support to make it through college; all the-while building passionate, innovative leaders who would inevitably return to their hometown to build a stronger future for their community. Inspired by the local, long-time Palmer Scholars program, which keeps tabs on recipients throughout their college careers, and the East Coast-based Posse Foundation, which connects low-income, minority scholarship recipients with peer support groups on their college campuses, Act Six was born.
It took on the added focus on building true leaders who would return home after college and help their hometowns flourish.
And so far, it’s working.
The Act Six Leadership and Scholarship initiative, which is part of the Northwest Leadership foundation, is currently in the applicant review phase of its 10th class, or cadre.
Since starting in 2002, there have been five successful graduating classes from Whitworth University, totaling 56 total graduates, 47 of which are from Tacoma. The four remaining cadres are currently attending school.
This year, Act Six will be accepting 65 more students to join the fully funded leadership-intensive program, most of which, upon graduation, will make their way back into their local community with a vision and a passion to make a difference.
Herron, a former teacher at Lincoln High School, said over a decade ago, the college vision at Tacoma’s highest poverty, highest minority school was low.
“When I started at Lincoln there was not a lot of momentum. Achievers Scholars was just getting started. And we thought if we could just get these high school kids to college, we had done our job.
“What I quickly found was a lot of the kids were coming back short of completing their degrees. Less than half of the students who started college finished. I was watching that happen right in front of me.”
Fast forward to 2011, and educational momentum and college drive has picked up considerably. New innovations in Tacoma’s education scene, coupled with a stronger focus for various college access groups including Act Six, has nurtured a culture of success for all.
For instance, this year alone 54 of the 900 Act Six applicants statewide are from Lincoln High School, many stemming from the innovative, high-rigor Lincoln Center program.
Over the years, Act Six has expanded from funneling Tacoma students into its sole partner Whitworth, to getting students from throughout the state into high-caliber, private schools such as Gonzaga, Pacific Lutheran University and Northwest University.
Out of the 40-plus Tacoma Act Six grads who have already joined the American workforce, close to a dozen have returned to Tacoma to work. Most of them are now working in educating the next generation of young leaders for the community.
“Developing leaders to transform their cities is the DNA of the Northwest Leadership Foundation,” Herron said.
“We don’t need another definition of success that says you’ve made it when you’ve made it out of the ‘hill.’ We want to challenge our students to love their community relentlessly, and to bring them back to the community that nurtured them.
“We’re just starting to see the fruit of that and that is in our alumni.”
Take Daniel Bacon, for example. He graduated from Lincoln in 2003, and was part of the first cadre of Act Six alumni to successfully complete a degree from Whitworth in 2007.
After three years of volunteering with AmeriCorps, he is now working as the Director of Alumni Support at Peace Community Center.
Or Denise Randle, who graduated from Lakes High School in 2002, class of Whitworth 2007 and finished her masters at PLU in 2008. She is now working with low-income, first generation college hopefuls through Foss High Shool’s Upward Bound college access program.
Delia Orosco is also an Act Six alumna – Whitworth class of 2007 – who has earned her masters in education and is also a former Teach for America teacher, and has returned to Tacoma to counsel and connect with students at Evergreen’s Upward Bound Program. When Orasco was in high school, the very program she works with today sparked her interest in attending college. “I had no idea what a college was until after my freshman year in high school,” she said. Getting in touch with Foss’ Upward Bound program connected her with the notion that college would be the key to a successful future. But she didn’t think paying for school was an option for her mother, who had always struggled financially. That’s where Act Six came in.
“It really is a full circle. When I joined (Act Six), I didn’t really understand the potential that I was going to have in my life.”
Jaquette Easterlin is another alumni who is working directly with Tacoma students, making sure they have the support they need to be successful.
The Wilson grad who grew up on Tacoma’s hilltop is currently working at SAMI for student support services through AmeriCorps, and living back on the Hilltop, just a few blocks from where she grew up.
“Out of my group of friends, I was only one who really went to college. It was good to be in that group of people (in my Act Six Cadre) who had the same vision and goals as me.”
Starting her career in education has led Easterlin to a goal of perusing a master’s degree in social work, and taking on a career as a high school guidance counselor.
That way, she says, she can impact students, even If only one at a time, so that they can in turn be successful and continue to pay that support forward.
“I just remember the struggles that came with school. Not being able to advocate for myself or feel like I could change it was frustration. So I want to be that person for those students, advocate for them and helps them get the best deal for their future.”
Since 2002, Act Six has trained 256 scholars in 29 cadres at eight Northwest colleges. Eighty-six percent of the scholarship recipients are first generation college students and/or low-income. More than 80 percent of the first graduates have returned to work or serve in their home communities.
And each year, as more and more students graduate from Act Six with an intense sense of leadership and passion for community building, the impact will grow exponentially.
“We’d love to see 100 students a year coming out of college, with most of them bringing something back to the community,“ Herron said.
Orasco, who works directly with providing access to the next generation of college grads, said students being able to see examples of success in their hometown is key.
“When youth see working professionals and know they went to their high school, it’s more realistic for students to see themselves in their shoes, even if it is 10 years down the road.
“When college students return to work in their community, the return on the investment for paying for that student’s education will have been so much more than the cost of school.
“It’s not just about that student doing something for their life, its impacting so many more people. The investment is not just for the individual, its also for the community.”
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